What To Do If Your Child Refuses To Go To School

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My daughter is 9-years old and in the fourth grade, and she just doesnt want to go to school!

MOLLY: The reader added that her daughter cries and howls and doesn’t want to go at all. What should she do?

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): I think we need to know a little bit more about what her history is about going to school. For instance, if she went to school happily for the last several years but all of a sudden she doesn’t want to go to school anymore, that would provoke different kinds of questions than if this is a child who every year refuses to go to school.

If this is a child who every year refuses to go to school, chances are she’s having separation anxiety from her mom rather than anything particular going on at school. And that has to be addressed because the first rule of thumb for dealing with separation anxiety is that you must get the kid into school every day. You absolutely can’t allow her to stay home.

However, if the child has had some kind of negative experience with the teacher or with classmates in the past, and that’s why she doesn’t want to go to school, that has to be explored in a different kind of way.

The mom may have to talk to the teacher about what went on, and she should consider that the child might need to talk about what happened as it was somehow traumatizing to her. There could be a number of issues to consider and they are each worth exploring because the etiology of what this is about is the most important clue. Once you know what causes this behavior, then you can go ahead and address it.

MOLLY: If the child just all of a sudden just doesn’t want to go to school, what would be the best way to start exploring what the cause could be?

MOM: Well, she’s 9 years old so she’s perfectly verbal. I would suggest sitting down with her in a very comfortable atmosphere for the child and talking about how things went last year at school. I would do that in any case because you have to really listen closely to what she’s saying. She might have a hard time telling her mom about something bad that had happened in school, especially if she feels any shame or humiliation from it.

MOLLY: So you have to first just talk about it. Should you ask directly? “Did something happen?”

MOM: Yes. Her mom could say, “I’m concerned about how you’ve been feeling about going to school this year. Let’s talk about how last year went. Did something happen at school that was upsetting? Did somebody give you a hard time? Was it a hard relationship with your teacher?”

If she can’t get much out of her child about it, she should try to talk to last year’s teacher. But always keep in mind that if this is a common problem for this child every year, you can’t ignore the separation anxiety issue with the mother.

MOLLY: How do you deal with that?

MOM: You talk to the kid about how the mom is there and mom will be there when she gets home from school and the girl can share her experiences with her mom when she comes home from school. I had a case in my office where we had the child, who was actually in high school, and the mother was working full time. We arranged for the child to call the mother every day at work at 4:00 pm when she came home from school to check in. This little routine provided enough reassurance for the child to feel ok about the daily separation for work and school.

MOLLY: What might be the long term effects?

MOM: There can be long-term effects of not dealing with childhood separation anxiety for sure. Children who continue to have separation anxiety past ages 5 or 6 miss out on socialization experiences and can grow into clingy teens that dominate the family with their needs. They may have a hard time adjusting to activities away from their parents, including schooling, and may never want to leave their parents’ house and become independent.

If the problem was bullying or another external factor, then it is incumbent upon the parent to work to rectify the situation and advocate for your child. At 9, she has years ahead of her in school.

The first job is to figure out what is behind her behavior. Then you can go from there.

Experience this? Comment below if you’ve had success dealing with a child that doesn’t want to go to school. Or Contact Us if you have other parenting questions you’d like to see addressed.

School Anxiety: What to Do if Your Kid Doesn’t Want to Go

My child is 10-years old and is refusing to go to school and complaining of physical aliments that have not been based in reality. What should I do?

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MOM: The first thing that people need to understand about school phobias is that it’s not actually a “school” phobia; it’s a fear of losing the parent, of being separated from the parent.

MOLLY: I bet that’s really misunderstood. I bet people think it mostly has to do with something going on at school.

MOM: It’s not about school. Well, occasionally it may be about school, but quite frankly I’ve never seen it about school. It’s about the separation from the parent. And for whatever reason – there’s a lot of stress going on in the house, whatever. For whatever reason, the child is afraid to separate from the parent.

Sometimes what you see are kids whose parents are always, always, always around. Parents who literally hover. This gives the message to the kid psychologically that she can’t make it on her own.

Now, you don’t expect a young child to make it on her own, but there are developmental steps occurring as the child begins to have a life outside of her home at school. So if the message that the parent gives is that the child is unable to manage without the parent, then the child will believe it.

The sad thing is that it’s really done out of a good heart on the parent’s part, because they feel that they’re loving and protecting their children as much as they can, and that’s true, but it can be overdone.

What you end up with is a child that’s frightened of the world out there and only feels safe with the parent. The kid doesn’t feel like she is grown up enough. Even if she might look grown up on the outside, on the inside she doesn’t feel like she can handle it. It feels too overwhelming and she might just decide to shut down from the world. These children figuratively cover up their heads with their blankets.

MOLLY: So what do you do if this happens?

MOM: The very first thing you do is enforce that the child has to go to school. It should not be an option to stay home. Once you get into an, “Okay, you can stay home from school” pattern, it’s a slippery slope.

Now, saying that, sometimes people might allow one day for a “mental health day”, and I think that’s okay, as long as it is accompanied with the clear message that tomorrow is back to school.

And then, if the reluctance to go to school continues, you probably need to get some professional help. The practice of not going to school is the kind of thing you don’t want to settle in for too long in a kid.

MOLLY: What could happen?

MOM: Well, these kids might find all kinds of ways not to leave home, or they could develop panic attacks. They might be reluctant to sleep overnight at friend’s house, or even have play dates without a parent. You might end up with a child who has a lot of resistance and anxiety around independent experiences. The panic is related to the separating from the parent.

MOLLY: So essentially they need to see a therapist.

MOM: Yeah, they do. And it’s not a hard cure.

MOLLY: So it’s not like a years and years thing.

MOM: No, it’s like a few months of therapy.

MOLLY: That’s it?

MOM: Yeah, that’s it. It’s not a hard thing to solve in therapy if you find a good therapist.

 

Experience this? Comment below if you’ve had success helping your child deal with school anxiety using other strategies. Or Contact US if you have other parenting questions you’d like to see addressed.